Just about an hour off the coast of southern California lie the closest of the Channel Islands.
Rising from the clear waters of the Pacific Ocean, four of these islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel, swing away from the west coast in a graceful volcanic arc. Together with Santa Barbara, a fifth island to the south, these arid, remote uplifts of land comprise America’s offshore Channel Islands National Park.
Easily the most remote national park I’ve visited, CINP is sometimes described as a trip back in time, “a glimpse of California as it used to be.”
Of course, this isn’t quite true.
Historically, the islands teemed with human life. According to the Park Service, some of the oldest human remains in North America — over 13,000 years old — were found on the islands. These early humans shared these rocky beaches and jutting mountains with mini-mammoths who stood only five feet tall.
More recently, the islands were home to the first named Californians, the Chumash Indians. After European discovery in the 16th Century, a succession of intrepid (and possibly foolish) business people tried to make a go of ranching on the islands, until finally in the mid-1900s, the land was turned over for preservation.
Today, the islands are completely uninhabited, save for the singular Park Service or Nature Conservancy employee, and the handful of campers who visit the islands and stay the night. Daylight hours are busy with visiting hikers, kayakers and divers — those who arrive mid morning and depart before the cocktail hour.
Sea Cave Kayaking
Last November, we visited Channel Islands National Park for the second time. Our appetites whetted the previous summer when we kayaked along Anacapa Island, this time we journeyed with Santa Barbara Adventure Company to Santa Cruz Island for a full day of sea cave kayaking. Santa Cruz Island has the largest concentration of sea caves in the world, as well as some of the clearest water on the planet.
After a safety orientation and basic kayaking lesson, as well as distribution of optional (but thoroughly necessary wetsuits — you will get wet and the water is cold), we were off. Paddling first to the west, we passed through a cave called the Elephant. A straightforward in and out, it was easy on such a calm day.
During our three-hour journey, we went into approximately 10 caves. Some were quite easy, like the Elephant, while others were challenging. We had two guides with us, Ryland and Aaron, who provided clear instructions before we entered any cave.
Some of the caves were really enormous caverns, and in one, our progress was halted by the presence of seals sleeping on the darkened beach, unmoving as rocks. Marine mammals are protected in CINP and if they are in a cave, that cave is off-limits.
Other caves were smaller and darker. In some, Ryland would go to the furthest recesses and guide us in one by one with a light, turning it off and plunging the cave into deep black when we reached him.
Some caves were narrow, requiring us to thread a passage, turning our paddles parallel to our boats. Others required us to pull ourselves with our hands through an opening in the rock just big enough for our heads and upper bodies.
In between caves, when we were on open water, the guides pointed out sea urchins, neon green sea anemones, the odd bright orange Garibaldi, sea hares and starfish.
A recent storm had loosed some northern Elkhorn kelp, rare in southern California. Pulling it up, Ryland found tiny brittle sea stars — a relative of the starfish that is about the size of a quarter and much more mobile, crawling about like a five-legged spider.
Because the water was so smooth and calm, we paddled more than anticipated. The guides gave us the option to go in early — to snorkel, to hike, to lounge in the sun, or to visit the Park Service visitor center in an old ranch house.
Many of us chose to keep paddling. On our way back to the anchorage at Scorpion Ranch, we paddled out to a tiny island, a mere outcropping, and into a memorable cave, called the Green Room.
Surfing waves through an opening in the rock, we found ourselves in an airy cathedral, a cavern glowing from beneath by sunlight penetrating a low overhang, just at the waterline. It was breathtaking, a stunning capstone to an enjoyable day.
Since no one had a camera (they don’t mix well with water), one of the guides suggested we take a quiet moment to absorb the scene.
Sitting there, in my brightly colored boat, I etched the color, the sound and the cave into my memory, a memory of California as it actually is at Channel Islands National Park.
When You Go…
Almost any journey to Channel Islands National park starts with a boat ride. Island Packers provides a daily ferry to Santa Cruz Island, with additional trips to the other islands on weekends and busy times of year.
Crossing the Santa Barbara Channel, the Island Packers crew kept a lookout for marine life and were happy to divert course to help us spy a lazy, sun-loving Stellars Sea Lion lounging on a buoy, place of right in the middle of a pod of nearly 1000 dolphins and stop forward progress to watch several humpback whales surface.
In addition to sea kayaking, many people take the ferry for independent day and overnight trips. Island Packers has volunteer guides on board to answer questions, offer suggestions and share information about the history and wildlife of the islands.
These guides provide an orientation on the islands and lead hikes. Because seats are limited, reservations are necessary and the Park Service requires campers to secure Island Packers ferry tickets before booking a campsite.
As for kayaking, the Park Service website lists a number of local outfitters. We enjoyed, and recommend, our tour with Aaron and Ryland from Santa Barbara Adventure Company.
At the beginning of the day, Aaron met us at Ventura Harbor for check in and then journeyed to Santa Cruz Island with us. Once on land, we met up with Ryland and together he and Aaron got everyone outfitted and oriented.
Food is not provided and I highly recommend bringing snacks and water with you on the kayak. For more on the history and archaeology of Channel Islands National Park, be sure to visit the NPS Visitors Center in Ventura Harbor.
More Information on Channel Islands National Park
- California Dreamin’ Part One: Kayaking Channel Islands National Park, September 19, 2012.
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